Learning languages effectively

tags: linguistics

This article touches on a handful of important topics that are vital to learning a foreign language. Learning a new language is complicated, overwhelming at times, but highly interesting and rewarding if done properly.

I’ll refrain from going into specific methods, as if language learning can be explained in a simple recipe-like form. I think everyone learns differently, but the points I discuss in this article should be universal for everyone. It’s up to you to find the particular method that works best for you.

Special thanks to Eiliv and Randel for helping me improve this article.

Table of contents

  1. Don’t learn too many languages at the same time
  2. Learn about the language first
  3. Proper pronunciation is key
  4. Start speaking early on / challenge yourself
  5. Learn by application, not memorization
  6. Media consumption: a double-edged sword
  7. Read books
  8. Record yourself
  9. Think in your target language
  10. Avoid word-for-word translations
  11. The SRS (Spaced Repetition System) fallacy
  12. Travel if possible
  13. And most importantly…
  14. Notes

Don’t learn too many languages at the same time

I’ve fallen victim of this in the past as well. There are so many cool languages out there to learn, all with their own story, culture, and interesting features and sounds. Even though this rabbithole seems fun at first, I’ve come to realize that you don’t actually learn anything this way. You only gain superficial knowledge of each language and essentially become a real-life example of a “jack of all trades, master of none”.

There’s no official limit for how many languages a person can learn at the same time, as this is purely dependent on one’s abilities and time available, but if you want to master something, you have to put in the hours, and mastering 10 languages at the same time just isn’t feasible. Instead, as a rule of thumb, find one or two languages that really interest you and focus on them. I’m sure if you’re like me, this does sound very restricting, but at the end of the day, I’d rather speak 2 languages great than 10 languages terribly.

If you do decide to learn multiple languages, make sure you have some “maintenance” time for the languages you already speak so that you don’t forget them.

Learn about the language first

Before even jumping into learning the language, make sure you know some stuff about it. Which family does it belong to? Who speaks it? Is it related to a language you already know? What about its history? See what the language looks like. Read a bit about its grammar and vocabulary. This is all useful information that can help you decide if you really are interested in learning that language, and can also give you a general idea of what you’re getting into, especially if you already have some experience with languages. All this can usually be found in the language’s Wikipedia article, but further research is never bad. Gather material which you can reference early on. This includes textbooks, podcasts, articles. Don’t get too caught up with this though, just find something to start with.

Proper pronunciation is key

Having a solid understanding of the grammar and vocabulary of the language is obviously very important, but it’s of no use when you cannot actually be understood due to bad pronunciation. Proper pronunciation makes you more pleasant to listen to, and you’re better understood (or understood at all, depending on the language). Of course, you probably won’t manage to get a 100% native accent, but you should try to, even if it’s technically not an attainable goal. A subtle foreign accent is fine as long as communication is not impeded.

To give an example of how wrong pronunciation can be a problem; English is taught in Greece from a very young age, but for some reason, (Greek speaking) teachers tend to not bother with pronunciation at all, hence why Greeks might speak good English on average, but are very hard to understand. A classic issue are the words “sit”, “seat”, “shit”, “sheet”. A Greek will most likely pronounce all 4 of them as /sit/, simply because Greek doesn’t have long vowels or the [ɪ] and [ʃ] sounds.

Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) first. Get a pronunciation chart (like this one) for your target language and say each individual sound out loud and try to get it as right as possible. Doing this from the very beginning will make you form good speaking habits. Watch/listen to people speaking the language and try to analyze and mimic their speech. Keep in mind that correct sentence-level pronunciation (i.e having a natural flow when pronouncing whole sentences) is different from pronouncing standalone words correctly.

Each language has regional accents, so make sure you don’t mix accents together. If you’re not going for a specific dialect or accent, a good rule of thumb is to find material and speak the language in what would be considered the most stereotypical or “standard” accent.

Start speaking early on / challenge yourself

A big mistake learners make is that they abstain from speaking early on, because they are afraid they don’t speak the language well enough to have actual conversations. This is very counter-productive; for one, practice makes perfect — if you don’t speak, you’ll not learn to speak. Second, speaking and reading/writing are different, independent skills.

Speaking introduces new variables, namely, anxiety and pressure, which are legitimate barriers to speaking well. You might be able to read and write a language perfectly, heck, even better than a native, but sound like an A1 beginner when speaking to a real person, which is hardly an exaggeration. The reasons are simple:

A nice way to go about using the language, is by joining Discord language servers [1] or some other language exchange platform. Especially with popular languages, those servers are very active, with lots of native speakers in them, so there’s no excuse not to start speaking, or at least writing, from the very first day. Language learning/exchange patforms are fine too.

In essence, get out of your comfort zone, ask questions, make mistakes, expose yourself, sound stupid and get laughed at. There’s no way around it. That’s all part of the learning process.

Learn by application, not memorization

This can be said for pretty much everything when it comes to learning, and I could dedicate a whole article to how much I dislike memorization. Since I’m a programmer, consider the following quote:

The only way to learn a new programming language is by writing programs in it.

— Dennis Ritchie

We tend to remember the things we need or have been useful in the past. Make sure you don’t try to squeeze in as much vocabulary, grammar [2] and all sorts of irrelevant stuff into your head at once when you don’t really need it, especially if you’re starting out. Truth is, if you don’t put what you learn into practice, you don’t really learn it. Always have real-world conversations as a goal — when you learn something, use it in a conversation and get feedback from native speakers. Write anything, from a diary to an essay.

Media consumption: a double-edged sword

Being immersed in a language means you’ll inevitably have to consume media, be it movies, podcasts, music. This is a very good way to both see the language in action, and develop an ear for it. However, just passively consuming media won’t get you far. If you don’t put in the hours to actively hone your skills, consuming media will only be an excuse for you to be lazy. Immersion is very beneficial when combined with active learning. [3]

The proper way to combine media consumption with actual learning is to note down the things you don’t understand and study them afterwards. The big advantage of doing this is that you study in an audiovisual way, meaning you associate language with pictures. Our brains are great at pattern recognition, so being able to associate a word with a picture/gesture, creates longer-lasting and intuitive knowledge.

When watching movies in a language you’re learning, ALWAYS use subtitles in that language!

Read books

Reading has lots of benefits as well. The thing with reading is that it makes you focus solely on the language, which in turn lets you think and analyze more carefully, at a slower pace. Reading books is an ideal source of sophisticated vocabulary and more complex grammatical structures, that can make a big difference when used properly in speech. Confining yourself to the most basic and colloquial use of the language is still good if you only care about having simple conversations. Languages are highly complex and there are things that cannot be expressed with just basic vocabulary and grammar.

Textbooks on the other hand, should be used only as reference, in my opinion.

Record yourself

I know, we all cringe listening to our voices, but let me explain. When speaking a new language, one tends to pay more attention to what he wants to say than his accent — this means that, inevitably, you’ll make lots of minor mistakes that go unnoticed when speaking. Recording your voice and listening to it afterwards lets you focus only on your accent and the small details that could improve it.

Think in your target language

Part of internalizing a language is thinking in it. Start having inner monologues and dialogues in the language you’re learning, name everything around you. You get the point.

Avoid word-for-word translations

Word-for-word translating means that you learn a sentence by translating directly from your native language. For example:

Greek: Πάω να κάνω μπάνιο (lit. “I’m going to do bath”).
English: I’m going to take a shower.

Think how absurd it would’ve sounded if instead of saying “I’m going to take a shower”, I had translated from Greek and said “I’m going to do bath”. All languages are different. They have their own rules, patterns, lexical and grammatical structures. This means that, when you learn a language, you have to learn the idioms and phrases that are used in that particular language, not try and translate words. Idioms are a great way to improve fluency and get a cultural insight behind the lingusitic differences that make a language unique.

The SRS (Spaced Repetition System) fallacy

I’m aware of the research being done on SRS, as well as its benefits. What I want to argue, however, is that languages are best learned in context and SRS alone won’t provide that. It can be a useful tool if used correctly, but relying on it will give you the impression of learning, when in reality you’ll be grinding your way through vocabulary and grammar, without any meaningful context.

Learning a language isn’t simply a matter of filling sentences on Duolingo or mindlessly memorizing your Anki cards. Those platforms (or better yet, games) should be used to complement your knowledge or to spend your time productively in the toilet, not as your primary source of learning. SRS is not a magic potion that can teach you what people spend years to learn, this just a get-rich-quick scheme. Languages are more than a flashcard game.

Again, there is merit to Spaced Repetition, but use it as a complementary tool only.

Travel if possible

If travelling is a possibility, make sure to plan a trip and practice the language there once you have a solid foundation. I would go as far as to say that you should put yourself in a situation where you have no other option but to speak the language. This is probably the best practice possible — you get real-world immersion, you speak the language in real life with locals, and, as a bonus, you’ll have a great time.

And most importantly…

Have fun learning and be consistent!

Everything I rambled about in this article is all fine, but it’s totally useless if you are not consistent with your learning. Languages, like any other skill, take patience, practice and consistent efforts in order to master. Instead of studying for 7 hours once a week, study 20, 30 minutes to, ideally, 1 hour each day. The brain needs continuous stimulation in order to really learn something, so practicing once a week, even though you might practice for 7 hours straight, is less effective.

The amount of time you dedicate to learning will determine how fast you’ll learn, but consistency will determine whether or not you WILL learn at all.


  1. Discord is not one of the best platforms I can think of, but unfortunately it’s where many language learning communities are, so at least take advantage of this. There’s a list of language servers where you can ask questions, speak and write the language.
  2. A nice chance to look up grammar is when analyzing phrases you already know, but don’t quite get their structure. It’s important to always understand the grammar behind a language, because it’ll both make recognizing patterns easier, but also save you lots of headaches.
  3. A good example of this is people who grew up in billingual families, but never learned to speak their second language. They might be able to understand the language perfectly, but are unable to speak. That’s because they never actively practiced learning the language, so they ended up only knowing how to recognize phrases and words they’ve been hearing over and over.